American Socialism in the Mid Twentieth Century, photoshopped image of Mount Rushmore

American Socialism in the Mid 20th Century

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The year prior to Upton Sinclair’s loss in California, the US elected Franklin D. Roosevelt into office. For American socialists at the time, this was both a blessing and a curse. Roosevelt co-opted many socialist demands, halting any momentum the Socialist Party of America, or American socialists more broadly, had gained since the turn of the century. The Democratic Party also offered to let socialists to run for their party, like the aforementioned Sinclair. 

Roosevelt was not a socialist in either the current definition or by the standards of the time. He reacted to a situation that unfettered capitalism had created. The complete lack of any controls on the stock market at the time allowed for a large number of scam companies to start up, driving the stock market to unreasonable levels based on half-truths and outright lies. Roosevelt’s policies forced reporting requirements and increased the oversight on publicly traded companies without restricting actual and lawful companies to trade. 

The complete lack of any bank controls led first to some banks failing. As people lost faith in the banks and tried to get their money out, they created bank runs that drove otherwise solid banks out of business. Roosevelt’s policies like the Glass-Steagall Act restored faith in the banking system and specific programs like FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) brought millions of dollars back into the system.  

In addition to banking reforms, Roosevelt had a number of accomplishments over his four terms that changed life in America in ways that socialists could support. He funded two New Deal programs while cutting the military budget by over 30% in his first two years. He also created the Social Security system which, compared with the social security systems in western European countries, was rather conservative. But for the first time, the federal government took responsibility for the economic security of the aged, the temporarily unemployed, dependent children, and the handicapped. It’s also interesting to note that his original intention was to make Social Security a universal program, but the 1935 act excluded approximately 40% of the workforce, including farmers, domestic workers, and other groups. 

The same year Senator Robert Wagner wrote the National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed workers the right to collective bargaining through unions of their own choice. When the Flint, Michigan sit-down strike threatened the production of General Motors, Roosevelt broke with the precedent set by many former presidents and refused to intervene; the strike ultimately led to the unionization of both General Motors and its rivals in the American automobile industry. In his next three elections, Roosevelt could count on a strong backing by union laborers. 
In his second term, he passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, cementing many of the demands of the early 20th century’s socialists like Florence Kelley into law. It outlawed child labor, established a federal minimum wage, and required overtime pay for certain employees who work in excess of forty hours per week, all things socialists had died fighting for in previous decades, and all things we’ve come to see as normal today.  

In addition to providing a lot of sorely needed jobs, Roosevelt’s works projects had lasting effects on the infrastructure, environment, and technological landscape of the US. But these were stopgap measures to deal with a particular crisis. So, while he was an amazing President in many ways, and did a lot to accomplish what had previously only been socialist goals, he was doing so to further consolidate the power of the Democratic party and to put enough bandages on Capitalism to save it from the threat of outright socialist revolution, electoral or otherwise.  

In his 1944 State of the Union Address, Roosevelt advocated that Americans should think of basic economic rights as a Second Bill of Rights. In it he proposed a right to: employment, food, clothing and leisure with enough income to support them, freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, housing, medical care, Social Security, and education. Roosevelt also proposed the G.I. Bill, which would create a massive program for returning soldiers with benefits including post-secondary education, medical care, unemployment insurance, job counseling, and low-cost loans for homes and businesses. 

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” he wrote. “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” 

This willingness to actually address in some way the problems that capitalism had begun to manifest made him an unprecedentedly popular President, winning a total of four terms in office. This isn’t to say it was all good, as he presided over some of America’s most dire abuses of human life, like Japanese internment camps, the draft, or the development of the Manhattan Project. Still, while I am leaving out a lot of his less favorable actions, he still used his power as President to effectively pursue more socialist goals than any President before or after him, and his legacy has been deeply influential to many modern American socialists as well. 

None of this was to say that socialism effectively ended in America 1933, replaced by a love for the Democrats and FDR’s style of capitalism. 

Sidney Hillman was a democratic socialist and leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and had been critical in rallying the union workers to support FDR in his record four terms as President. Hillman became an influential adviser to FDR and Senator Robert Wagner, helping draft laws for workers’ rights including the National Labor Relations Act. 

Despite this, he still had aspirations beyond being a Democratic cheerleader, forming the American Workers Party in 1935. Hillman’s ACWA pioneered a version of “social unionism” in the 1920s that offered low-cost cooperative housing and unemployment insurance to union members and founded a bank that would serve labor’s interests. Hillman had strong ties to many progressive reformers, such as Jane Addams and Clarence Darrow, who had assisted the Amalgamated in its early strikes in Chicago in 1910 and New York in 1913. 
In 1925 A. Philip Randolph organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African American labor union. In the early Civil Rights and labor movements, Randolph’s was a voice that would not be silenced. His continuous agitation with the support of fellow labor rights activists against unfair labor practices in relation to people of color eventually led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 in 1941, banning discrimination in the defense industries during World War II. The group then successfully pressured President Harry S. Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, ending segregation in the armed services. 

This was also a time when the gay community began to step forward into the socialist movement to advocate for their rights. One of the very first was Harry Hay Jr, a prominent American gay rights activist, communist, and labor advocate. He was a co-founder of the Mattachine Society, the first sustained gay rights group in the United States, as well as the Radical Faeries, a loosely affiliated gay spiritual movement.  

Bayard Rustin would be notable throughout the civil rights movement, fighting not only as a black man but as a gay man as well. As a student of nonviolence under Randolph, he went on to seed the Civil Rights movement with the philosophy of Non-Violence. Rustin and Randolph organized a successful March on Washington movement starting in 1941. This movement remained popular for over a year, as thousands of black Americans and their allies would periodically flood Washington with activists. It was perhaps this exact political pressure that would cause FDR to consider an Economic Bill of Rights a few years later

In 1949, Albert Einstein wrote an article for the magazine Monthly Review explaining his thoughts on socialism. In it, he explains his political positions and why he feels the need to weigh in on a subject that is outside his area of expertise.  

“Socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends.” 

In the article, Einstein raises three main issues with capitalism. First, he says, “Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being.”  Einstein goes on to say that capitalism pushes us to excesses of personal achievement at a great cost to the social collective.  

He also saw capitalism as wasteful and inefficient.  

“There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an ‘army of unemployed’ almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all.” 

Lastly, he believes that the profit motive promotes cruelty for profit.  

“The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.” 

“I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child.” 

It may or may not surprise you that Martin Luther King Jr. thought of himself as a democratic socialist and by the end of his life, he was openly talking about the injustices that were inherent to capitalism. Of all the people on this list, he had the most followers and influence in America when he died. He’s also probably the figure on this list you know the most about, and because of that, you may have a mistaken understanding of what he was fighting for, especially in the year leading up to his assassination.  
As the first person to have a federal holiday honoring them without being a president, the first African American with a monument on the national mall, and the sole American venerated as a martyr of the 20th century at Westminster Abbey, King’s legacy endures. His legacy is, however, often sanitized, manipulated, and warped to support the narrative others want to tell. 

King was expressing his opposition to capitalism as early as 1952. In a letter to his wife sent that year, he noted that “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.”  Over a decade later, in a speech to the Negro American Labor Council in 1965, King declared that “something is wrong with capitalism,” and suggested that “There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” His concern for the poor was unflinching and came to greater prominence in his activism towards the end of his life. In his final speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Council, he said: “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” … When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”   

King was supported in his efforts by numerous socialists like Bayard Rustin who organized Freedom Rides and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen King’s leadership. He also passed along what he had learned from about nonviolence from A. Philip Randolph and would serve as an organizer for a new March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside Randolph in 1963. It was at this iteration of the March on Washington that King delivered his most famous speech in which he promoted the non-violence of the organizers, Randolph and Rustin: 

“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” 

And while neither the words socialism nor capitalism appear in the speech, this didn’t stop King from incorporating economic language into the speech on a metaphorical level: 

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.  
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” 

King had a number of specific solutions to the problems he saw America and the world facing; “the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”  Like other 20th-century socialists before him he was in direct opposition to the current war – which for him, was Vietnam. When King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, he was also in the middle of the Poor People’s Campaign which focused on economic inequality and demanded an “Economic Bill of Rights” from Congress.  

The Poor People’s Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included, among other demands, a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing. The Poor People’s Campaign was intended to be a part of the second phase of the civil rights movement. King said, “We believe the highest patriotism demands the ending of the war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty”.  

King wanted to bring poor people to Washington, D.C., forcing politicians to see them and think about their needs: “We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down, if necessary, in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way … and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”   It was likely because of this campaign and the real threat that it posed to the moneyed interests in control of American policymaking that he was assassinated. 
The proposal wasn’t entirely new as it echoed the Economic Bill of Rights suggested in 1944 by Franklin D Roosevelt, whose death in 1945 stopped him from being able to put the proposal into action, but many of its promises lived on in the Poor People’s Campaign before its leader too met a sudden and early end. 
That’s far from the end of socialism in America, and there are arguably more influential socialists and anarchists today than ever before, so the sky is really the limit if we can come together.  Obviously, we have an uphill battle to fight for progress, but this always has and always will be the case for socialists. We only pick uphill battles because this is the nature of socialism. We will always, by this nature, push the boundaries of society closer and closer to utopia. 
Nearing the end of this project, some commonalities are clear. Socialists have a strong sense of morals for their time, even when compared to their progressive contemporaries. Time after time, the passage of years will transform any radical socialist cause into common sense. Socialists oppose war pretty consistently, and usually have a strong connection to organized labor. Caring about workers and humane working conditions, they were the first to call out slavery and the first to call for universal suffrage.  
Once those goals were achieved the movement shifted to improving labor standards and quality of life for workers, calling for many aspects of working life that we find invaluable today, even though much of what they fought for has now eroded. Socialists in the 20th century called for the expansion of human rights, perhaps best summed up in FDR’s 1944 proposal of an Economic Bill of Rights and crystallized in MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign. 
The 20th century not only changed the goals of socialists after the victories of the 1800’s and through their continued successes our lives were changed in ways that are appreciable even now. As a summation of these ideas, I leave you with MLK’s last sermon, The Problem of Poverty as presented by Content Creator Matt Orfalea: 


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